Searching for scented memories: The scented life of Nicola Cheung Young

08 Feb 2018

As a mother of three daughters (who recently announced that she is pregnant with her fourth), taking care of her family became Nicola Cheung Young’s top priority the moment she got married. Yet even in the midst of an intense period of parenthood, she still managed to complete a degree in Environmental Management at the University of Hong Kong a couple of years ago, which she hopes will help her instill the importance of environmental protection in her family and also to raise awareness in the next generation through education. While Nicola’s previous life in the entertainment world couldn’t seem any further away, she can still recall it vividly through the scent of tobacco. As for today, this new chapter Nicola’s life centres around a very contrasting scent.

"Whenever I smell cigarettes, my mind flashes back to my previous life in the entertainment industry like a trotting horse lamp – making movies until late at night, everyone tearing their hair out trying to make things work, all the happy and unhappy memories from those days come back like a flood,”    Nicola Cheung Young explains.

Before becoming a wife and a mother, people always saw Nicola as a cutesy girl. It takes time to adjust from that impression to Nicola nowadays – the elegant lady – but Nicola insists “I am anything but elegant!”, reasserting that public images can be very different from real personalities. And indeed, Nicola is always full of surprises – our photographer picked a moody spot for the photoshoot and expected Nicola to be all dressed up in gowns and extravagance. No one thought she would showed up in colourful sweater and jumpsuit, bright and alive as if spring had already arrived. She handpicked her outfits that day; “This is how I dress for myself.”

And just as with fashion, Nicola is very specific when it comes to perfumes. “Perfume is an extension of oneself. I have never really been fond of sugary perfumes, because I don’t want to be labelled as cutesy. Nobody who actually knows me thinks that I’m sweet or cute, and that’s exactly why I sometimes wear really strong perfumes on purpose. But then when I go home I think, actually, I am not that gaudy. To me, picking the right perfume is a path of self-discovery.”

Nicola’s earliest scented memory can be traced back to her childhood. “I still remember the scent when my mum put her skincare on in the car; every time she did, I would sneeze nonstop. That scent is still very vivid for me nowadays, and it made me realise that I have a good nose.” People say that in pregnant women, the sense of smell is extra sensitive, and that rings especially true to Nicola, for whom odours have caused quite a few embarrassments. Discussing this, she laughs and offers a practical remedy: “Every time I am pregnant I keep a bottle of peppermint essential oil with me to protect me from unexpected unpleasant odours, especially in the elevator. Bad breath and the smell of other’s people hair or body makes me uncomfortable or even nauseated.”

With such sharp olfaction, Nicola was actually once invited to work with a genuine perfume ‘nose’. “It was interesting - when I first set foot in the entertainment industry, there was a nose who asked me to go to Switzerland with him and work in a perfumery.” Although she didn’t choose that path, olfaction still plays an important role in her life, especially when it comes to picking boyfriends and her husband. “Yes, I always associate different scents with emotions and affecting events. I know my natural scent very well, but I realised it changes drastically pre- and post-labour and when I am breastfeeding my children. I can still recall my mum’s scent: I always smelled her clothes when I was young. But there is a catch to having a good nose: when I meet new people, if they are wearing the wrong perfume or have body odour, I find it difficult to get to know them. Smell was particularly important when it came to choosing my boyfriends and later my husband. After 10 years, I still love the scent of my husband.”

Indeed, psychological studies have proven that scents are closely linked with memories and emotions. One could even say that they are linked with human instincts. Nicola says that whenever she smells cigarettes, her mind flashes back to her previous life in the entertainment industry like a trotting horse lamp. “The scent of cigarettes remind me of making movies until late at night, everyone tearing their hair out trying to make things work, all the happy and unhappy memories from those days come back like a flood.” Nicola’s antipathy towards the scent of cigarettes is actually her subconscious telling her not to go back to the past.

And while Nicola remembers her previous life in the entertainment industry via the scent of tobacco, her life in this new chapter is one lived in nature, redolent of herbs and flowers. For Nicola, the scent of fresh grass represents the environment she wishes to provide for her children, so they will thrive. “I like two scents the most: one is the sweetness of freshly cut grass. When I was young and living in Canada, I would occasionally notice it; it’s a very lively, refreshing and natural smell. The second scent is the white orchid, especially when it’s outdoors and you suddenly find yourself embraced within this intense floral aroma.”

She continues, “Things that are important in life are often not easy to obtain, like those scents: they are windfalls, something you can’t pursue. It’s not like turning on a TV at a certain time to see what is scheduled, expected. The randomness of it is what moves me the most.” And this is the allure of scent – although invisible and intangible, they tie the red thread of fate between you and me, and unexpected occurrences.

Scent representing Nicola:

Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle | EN PASSANT

“I found it!” Nicola’s heart screamed when she smelled this perfume. Like white lilacs after a rain shower in early spring, Olivia Giacobetti’s perfume is inspired by a recollection of a trip to Italy, where the perfumer paced through a flower shop and into a bakery. The bouquet of lilacs, cucumbers and wheat reconstruct the aroma of that walk. The initial sweetness of lilacs reminds us of the tenderness of their delicate petals, while the fragrance becomes warmer and sweeter through time. Soft wheat, cedar and musk constitute the base notes of the perfume, giving you a sense of clearness and freshness.


Nicola's wearing: Cyclas & Rosie Assoulin (All from JOYCE)

Hair by: Ling Chow @ Private I